LONDON, Feb 24 2023 (IPS) – Over the year since the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine, on one side of the border civil society has shown itself to be a vital part of the effort to save lives and protect rights – but on the other, it’s been repressed more ruthlessly than ever.

Ukraine’s civil society is doing things it never imagined it would. An immense voluntary effort has seen people step forward to provide help.

Overnight, relief programmes and online platforms to raise funds and coordinate aid sprang up. Numerous initiatives are evacuating people from occupied areas, rehabilitating wounded civilians and soldiers and repairing damaged buildings. Support Ukraine Now is coordinating support, mobilising a community of activists in Ukraine and abroad and providing information on how to donate, volunteer and help Ukrainian refugees in host countries.

In a war in which truth is a casualty, many responses are trying to offer an accurate picture of the situation. Among these are the 2402 Fund, providing safety equipment and training to journalists so they can report on the war, and the Freefilmers initiative, which has built a solidarity network of independent filmmakers to tell independent stories of the struggle in Ukraine.

Alongside these have come efforts to gather evidence of human rights violations, such as the Ukraine 5am Coalition, bringing together human rights networks to document war crimes and crimes against humanity, and OSINT for Ukraine, where students and other young people collect evidence of atrocities.

The hope is to one day hold Putin and his circle to account for their crimes. The evidence collected by civil society could be vital for the work of United Nations monitoring mechanisms and the International Criminal Court investigation launched last March.

As is so often the case in times of crisis, women are playing a huge role: overwhelmingly it’s men who’ve taken up arms, leaving women taking responsibility for pretty much everything else. Existing civil society organisations (CSOs) have been vital too, quickly repurposing their resources towards the humanitarian and human rights response.

Ukraine is showing that an investment in civil society, as part of the essential social fabric, is an investment in resilience. It can quite literally mean the difference between life and death. Continued support is needed so civil society can maintain its energy and be ready to play its full part in rebuilding the country and democracy once the war is over.

Russia’s crackdown

Vladimir Putin also knows what a difference an enabled and active civil society can make, which is why he’s moved to further shut down Russia’s already severely restricted civic space.

One of the latest victims is Meduza, one of the few remaining independent media outlets. In January it was declared an ‘undesirable organisation’. This in effect bans the company from operating in Russia and criminalises anyone who even shares a link to its content.

Independent broadcaster TV Rain and radio station Echo of Moscow were earlier victims, both blocked last March. They continue broadcasting online, as Meduza will keep working from its base in Latvia, but their reach across Russia and ability to provide independent news to a public otherwise fed a diet of Kremlin disinformation and propaganda is sharply diminished.

It’s all part of Putin’s attempt to control the narrative. Last March a law was passed imposing long jail sentences for spreading what the state calls ‘false information’ about the war. Even calling it a war is a criminal act.

The dangers were made clear when journalist Maria Ponomarenko was sentenced to six years in jail over a Telegram post criticising the Russian army’s bombing of a theatre where people were sheltering in Mariupol last March. She’s one of a reported 141 people so far prosecuted for spreading supposedly ‘fake’ information about the Russian army.

CSOs are in the firing line too. The latest targeted is the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia’s oldest human rights organisation. In January, a court ordered its shutdown. Several other CSOs have been forced out of existence.

In December an enhanced law on ‘foreign agents’ came into force, giving the state virtually unlimited power to brand any person or organisation who expresses dissent as a ‘foreign agent’, a label that stigmatises them.

The state outrageously mischaracterises its imperial war as a fight against the imposition of ‘western values’, making LGBTQI+ people another convenient target. In November a law was passed widening the state’s restriction of what it calls ‘LGBT propaganda’. Already the impacts are being felt with heavy censorship and the disappearance of LGBTQI+ people from public life.

The chilling effect of all these repressive measures and systematic disinformation have helped damp down protest pressure.

But despite expectation of detention and violence, people have protested. Thousands took to the streets across Russia to call for peace as the war began. Further protests came on Russia’s Independence Day in June and in September, following the introduction of a partial mobilisation of reservists.

Criminalisation has been the predictable response: over 19,500 people have so far been detained at anti-war protests. People have been arrested even for holding up blank signs in solo protests.

It’s clear there are many Russians Putin doesn’t speak for. One day his time will end and there’ll be a need to rebuild Russia’s democracy. The reconstruction will need to come from the ground up, with investment in civil society. Those speaking out, whether in Russia or in exile, need to be supported as the future builders of Russian democracy.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.